Kids learn in many different ways. Some do best with information they hear. Others may find it easiest to learn by seeing something. Multisensory instruction is a way of teaching that engages more than one sense at a time.
How does multisensory instruction work?
When kids learn, they often rely on sight to look at text and pictures and to read information. Many kids also rely on hearing to listen to what the teacher is saying.
Multisensory teaching isn’t limited to reading and listening. Instead, it tries to use all the senses. Not every lesson will use all five senses (taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing, and movement). But in most multisensory lessons, kids engage with the material in more than one way.
For example, let’s say a class is studying apples. Kids might have the chance to visually examine, touch, smell, and taste apples — instead of just reading and listening to their teacher speak about how they grow. Then they might hold a halved apple and count the number of seeds inside, one by one.
That’s multisensory teaching. It conveys information through things like touch and movement — called tactile and kinesthetic elements — as well as sight and hearing.
What subjects is multisensory instruction used for?
Many programs designed to help struggling readers include a multisensory approach (in addition to other components). Orton–Gillingham pioneered this approach. Programs like these deliberately use sight, sound, movement, and touch to help kids connect language to words.
For example, one of the techniques the Wilson Reading System uses is a “sound-tapping” system. Kids tap out each sound of a word with their fingers and thumbs to help them break the words down.
The Barton Reading Program materials include color-coded letter tiles that help students connect sounds to letters.
But multisensory instruction is used to teach other subjects, too.
Some grade school math programs use manipulatives (small objects like interlocking cubes or shape blocks) to help kids do math.
Science labs, in which kids perform experiments, write down the steps, and report their findings, are multisensory learning experiences.
Even songs and chants that teach things like the days of the week or the names of the states are examples of multisensory learning.
Multisensory instruction aligns with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. Classrooms that are designed using UDL principles give students many ways to engage in their learning. UDL provides different options for students to meet their learning goals and to show what they’ve learned. By its nature, multisensory instruction builds in that variety. It makes it easier for kids to work in the way that they learn best in different subjects.
Who can benefit from multisensory instruction?
All kids can benefit from multisensory lessons. If kids learn something using more than one sense, the information is more likely to stay with them. The engaging activities result in better memory of the skill.
But multisensory learning can be particularly helpful for kids who learn and think differently. For example, students who struggle with visual or auditory processing may find learning information through only reading or listening a challenge.
Using multiple senses gives all kids more ways to connect with what they’re learning. This type of hands-on learning can make it easier for kids to:
Make connections between new information and what they already know.
Understand and work through problems.
Use nonverbal problem-solving skills.
Multisensory instruction helps kids tap into the ways they feel most comfortable learning to make connections and form memories. And it allows them to use a wider range of ways to show what they’ve learned.
Multisensory teaching takes into account that different kids learn in different ways. It helps meet the varying needs of all kids — not just those who learn and think differently. And by providing multiple ways to learn, it gives all kids a chance to thrive.
Interested in learning more about multisensory instruction?